A wounded, underdog, and ultimately doomed Carolina squad left its heart on the floor, and it was just barely enough for victory. Despite injury and overwhelming odds, the Tar Heels found a way to prevail. Make no mistake: Before Michael Jordan hit The Shot over the Georgetown press and Fred Brown couldn’t tell James Worthy from a teammate, this was Dean Smith’s finest hour.
The 1977 Tar Heels were the Dean’s perfect creation: A deep, talented, unselfish team that executed his game plan to perfection. In Walter Davis, Tommy LaGarde, Mike O’Koren, Dudley Bradley, Rich Yonaker, and John Kuester, they had a terrific supporting cast of players that would enjoy careers in the NBA. And in Phil Ford, they had the perfect superstar to run Dean’s system.
But by the time the Tar Heels had reached mid-season, they began to fall victim to the injury bug. First it was the senior big man LaGarde, who was lost for the year. Then, in the ACC Semifinal, Walter Davis broke a finger in his shooting hand, requiring surgery. Then, in the Sweet 16, their All-American point guard Ford hyperextended his elbow. Just like that, the Tar Heels’ three best players were either out or hobbled.
Such injuries may have finished any other team, but not the ‘77 Tar Heels: John Kuester came up huge in both the ACC Tournament and the East Regionals to help the Heels survive and advance. Mike O’Koren, the rare freshman contributor, came up big as well while Davis struggled with his shot. The Tar Heels, wounded and all, managed to limp to the Final Four in Atlanta, where they would face a juggernaut: Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV.
Known as “The Hardway Eight,” the 1977 UNLV squad was nothing short of monstrous: With their pressing “Amoeba” defense, they harassed opposing teams into waves of turnovers and capitalized on them at an historic rate. The Rebels averaged 107 points per game, in an era that predated both the shot clock and three-point line. They set a record for points scored in a single season. They had seven future NBA players on their roster, led by Eddie Owens, Sam Smith, Robert Smith, and Larry Moffett. By the time they squared off with the Tar Heels, they were 29-2. Few gave the crippled UNC squad much of a chance.
The Rebels were firing right out of the gate, their press and aggressive offense rattling the Heels. Phil Ford, still far from his best self, struggled mightily, missing shots and committing turnovers. Larry Moffett hit his first four shots and wreaked havoc on UNC’s front line, which was relying on the freshman Yonaker as a starter. But a late flurry from Mike O’Koren brought the Tar Heels back late in the half and at the intermission UNLV led by just six, 49-43.
In the second half, the Runnin’ Rebels extended their lead to ten around the 17-minute mark, but then the Tar Heels caught a break: Larry Moffett took a stray elbow to the face from his teammate Glen Gondrezick and was forced to leave the game temporarily. Carolina capitalized immediately: A 14-0 UNC run swung the game in their favor and they suddenly had a 59-55 lead. With the lead in their hands, Dean reverted to his signature set: The Four Corners.
It was a masterstroke: With sure-handed ballhandlers at every position, the Heels were able to spread out the Rebels, using their aggressive press against them. Tarkanian’s Amoeba Defense was stretched too wide and cracks began to appear. Ford, who had a rough game up until that point (he finished 4-10 from the field), suddenly found lanes opening up for drives. Over and over again, he dove for the hoop, drawing defenders, and dropping it off to open shooters and cutters. His favorite targets were Mike O’Koren, who finished the night with 31 points on 14-19 shooting, and Walter Davis, who despite playing with screws in his shooting hand, went 7-7 from the floor for 19 points.
Let me repeat that: In a National Semifinal, against the #1 team in America, a freshman scored 31 points and a guy with SCREWS IN HIS SHOOTING HAND went 7 for 7. Jiminy Christmas...
But the Runnin’ Rebels didn’t go quietly: Down the stretch, they kept it close and forced the Heels to win it at the line. John Kuester, the hero of the ACC Tournament and Regional Finals, came up big, hitting five of six free throws in the final minute. UNLV nailed a meaningless long range jumper at the buzzer to make it 84-83 Tar Heels. Exhausted but elated, the Heels ran off the court as the Rebels, stunned, wondered how on earth they had been beaten.
A look at the box score reveals the clashing nature of the two teams’ styles: UNLV put up 80 shots to UNC’s 56, virtue of the many turnovers the Heels, and particularly Ford (who had nine) were forced into. But Carolina dominated on the glass, outrebounding the Rebels 40-26. In addition, they went 18-28 from the free throw line, while Vegas went just 1-5. The Tar Heels’ disciplined halfcourt game ultimately wore out the Rebels, whose pressing style caused them to commit a series of bad fouls in the second half, sending Carolina to the line, where they were able to salt it away.
It was the high-water mark of a team that refused to lie down and die throughout the postseason. In the ACC Tournament, with Ford on the bench with foul trouble, the Heels overcame a late 8-point deficit to win. In the Sweet 16, they trailed by 14 in the second half to Notre Dame and came back to win. They followed that up two days later by beating Kentucky, despite Ford’s injury.
The season ended with a crushing loss to Marquette (a team that wouldn’t have stood a chance against a full-strength UNC squad) in the title game, but Dean and Co.’s upset of the Hardway Eight will always be remembered as the ultimate gut-check victory by a team with plenty of talent, but even more heart.